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Making Moderate Islam by Rosemary R. Corbett

Ground Zero Mosque supporters
photo by David Shankbone

Nobody seemed to care that an upscale Islamic community center was being proposed for lower Manhattan until 2010 when Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post christened it “The Ground Zero Mosque”. Sporting its new sobriquet, the proposed project made the familiar leap from scandal rag to cable news to becoming a fetish in America’s culture war.

Many Americans assumed the only two things worth knowing about the project was that it was “Muslim” and close to where the World Trade Center Towers had stood, which fed the suggestion that the community center might serve as a triumphalist monument to Islamic terrorism, which in turn attracted right-wing commentators and politicians like wolves to a wounded rabbit. None was as keen for the kill as the silver-haired Newt Gingrich, who libeled the project sponsors with a barrage of anti-Islamic innuendo calculated to establish his presidential bona fides. The sponsors tried reshuffling their leadership and scaling the project back, and they revamped their mission statement to emphasize their “inter-faith” over their “Islamic” ambitions, but the damage was done. The proposal was withdrawn and America moved on to its next bone of contention.

In Rosemary R. Corbett’s fascinating and profoundly informative new book, Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy, the brutish smack-down of the community center plays only a limited role. The project’s unraveling is recounted drily in the final chapter, its sponsors the victims of a heartless political storm the reader knows is coming but catches the earnest protagonists completely unaware. Most of the book tells the far more interesting and original story of the decades-long struggle by Muslim community leaders and intellectuals in New York to forge a distinctively American version of Islam, a new interpretation of the faith that would come across as authentically Islamic to its followers but “moderate” and unthreatening to their neighbors. Corbett introduces us to Muslim leaders who proselytize to inter-faith audiences while serving as spiritual leaders in New York-area mosques and Sufi study centers. They take as their models an earlier generation of Jewish and Catholic intellectuals who succeeded in overcoming popular prejudice and suspicion, and were able to move their communities from the fringes of American civil society to its center. At times these contemporary Muslim leaders’ expression of genuine love and admiration for American ideals is deeply touching, which only makes their rough dismissal at the hands of demagogues more tragic.

Corbett spent fifteen years researching her book, following the careers and day-to-day activities of these leaders as they cultivate a vision of a distinctly American Islam. She introduces the movement’s followers and their real-world concerns, as well as other members of the American Muslim community who to some degree and for various reasons opposed them. She intriguingly traces the evolution of the moderate American ideal from the dominant Protestant ethic in the early twentieth century to the emergence of the term “Judeo-Christian values” that was popularized after World War II, and from there to the moderate Muslims’ efforts to broaden the rubric even further to embrace the core values of the “Abrahamic faiths”, which they suggest are artfully expressed in America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. In passing, she also relates the sad tale of the difficulties America created for these moderate Muslim leaders when, for example, the abuses of Abu Ghraib were exposed and the leaders’ narrative of shared American and Islamic values threatened to create a schism with their followers. What emerges is the story of a religious minority seeking acceptance from a skeptical and unwelcoming majority while also trying to find the proper balance between assimilation and religious authenticity. The details about the Muslim experience in American are compelling, but the broad outline of their struggle seems universal.

Americans and Sufism

The protagonists in Making Moderate Islam are Sufis, and their appeal to non-Muslim Americans is one that cottons to the popular sense in America that Sufism is a friendlier flavor of scary Islam. Corbett shows how America’s favorable view of Sufism created a domestic political opportunity for American Sufis to offer themselves as a bridge to Muslims in other countries in the wake of the 911 attacks, despite the fact that many Muslim governments and traditional Muslims abroad are deeply suspicious of Sufism. The Sufi pitch to be at the core of a new American style of Islam also brought it into conflict with the Black Muslims, which invited inter-communal stereotyping along depressingly familiar racial lines: some Black Muslims might stereotype the Sufis as a suspicious hybrid of foreigners and dabbling New Age liberals, and some Sufis might return the favor with a narrative about persistent African-American indolence in a storied land of opportunity. Corbett’s compact narrative skillfully introduces and returns to these threads, demonstrating that the unfinished story of Muslim acceptance in “Judeo-Christian” America is already a long and complicated one.

Professor Corbett is almost clinically clear-eyed when she renders the main characters in the story, even though she obviously knows many of them personally. There are no saints or martyrs and, with the possible exception of Gingrich, no villains. Everyone else is navigating a complex matrix of motivations: to feel they are serving God in an authentic way, to improve the lot of their community, and to achieve worldly success and recognition. They are in general principled and earnest, but also flexible in their thinking and in their tactics. In changing contexts, they may tout or obscure their Sufi backgrounds. Corbett is frank in outlining how political shifts forced changes in her protagonists’ talking points about Islam and American society, but these shifts come off as far from cynical or hypocritical. The Muslim leaders are doing what we all do, trying to adhere to their principles while seeking acceptance from those around them, working to promote their faith while making their own way in the world, wanting to do well by doing good.

photo from wikipedia commons of Feisal Abdul Rauf
Feisal Abdul Rauf

The challenge of “moderation”

Professor Corbett’s book is most thought provoking when she recounts the intellectual challenge involved when one attempts to blend the cherished ideals of America and Islam in a way that still rings true to Americans who are not Muslim and Muslims who are not American. That goal is the life-long work of the central personality of the book, a Sufi master and intellectual named Feisal Abdul Rauf. Along the way, Rauf had to answer Islamic critics who charged that even suggesting such a blending was un-Islamic. In response, Rauf and his allies insisted that America offered the best opportunity to strip traditional Muslim practice of its “cultural” overlays that were the products of other times and other social contexts, which would allow American Muslims to recognize the essential core of Islam that all Muslims shared.

Professor Corbett does not deviate from her taut narrative to explore the idea that, far from being a break with what Muslims had done centuries before in faraway places, Rauf and his followers were doing exactly what they had done for exactly the same reasons. Rauf’s community imagined they were cleansing Islam of its cultural biases without seeming to consider that they were in reality overlaying Islam with new American cultural biases.

As it was in the beginning…

El Greco Peter and Paul

While his critics accused him of being unfaithful, what Rauf and his followers were engaged in was a modern version of the same timeless process that spawned the Abrahamic faiths. His Sufi community’s competition with the Black Muslim movement for the favor of the American administration was not different from the biblical Nehemiah’s competition with the Samaritans for the favor of the Persian king. Their emphasis on the importance of community service as part of an effort to secure broader social acceptance was not different from how St. Paul brought donations from the Aegean churches to Jesus’ brother James in Jerusalem in exchange for James’ blessing Paul’s ministry. Their seeking of common ground with other faiths was not different from Mohammed’s experimenting with directing the qibla toward Jerusalem before turning it to the traditional Arab holy city of Mecca. Each of these ancient events were themselves examples of evolving religions trying to find a hold in challenging circumstances, and each was later enshrined in scripture that hardened into dogma. That traditional dogma was the detritus Rauf thought he was stripping away to get to the essential truth underneath, just as Nehemiah, Paul and Mohammed must have been certain they were doing. It is a mistake to imagine the Abrahamic faiths were cast into their final shapes long ago—in fact they were wrought from what preceded them into what would work for a contemporary mindset. That process has never stopped, and Rosemary Corbett has produced a thoughtful and thorough account of that same process going on today for Muslims in post-911 America.

Making Moderate Islam provides an informed and nuanced view of faith being faithfully reshaped. It must be read by anyone who dares to venture an opinion on the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, but it should be read by anyone who wants to think hard about what it really means to be an American, and the standards we Americans demand for full and equal participation in American society.

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